I’ve read many times that it’s part of Asian culture to avoid displaying excessive emotions in public. Throughout our visit to Southeast Asia, this cultural norm seemed mostly correct. On our prior visits to Japan, I would say this generalization is definitely correct. I mean, if I were to (ok, ahem, when I did) lose it a few times in Japan, it did actually get things done. But even a disrespectful Gaijin like me knew that I was acting way outside the bell curve. I’ve since read that displaying anger or frustration is seen in these cultures as a sign of weakness, as a loss of control. Reading that, and thinking on things a bit, I decided that maybe the “hostile westerner” approach that always served as the backup plan in Japan wasn’t the best approach. So, for the most part, I’ve done what I can to avoid bringing shame upon my people by “displaying weakness” and getting too visibly pissed off…. well, at least not too often. All of that being said, let me just say that in our short time in China, this cultural and behavioral norm does not seem to apply in the same way whatsoever. If displaying anger and frustration publicly is a sign of weakness, then I’m gonna have to say that a whole lot of Chinese people are kinda weak.
Yesterday we caught a flight out of Saigon at 3 p.m. No issues at the airport or on the flight. We’ve even been able to maintain our record of no checked bags on this trip, even though our carry-ons are way past the weight limit. Sometimes the language barrier works to your advantage when trying to enforce a rule is more trouble than it’s worth for them. We did have a first though on this trip, on this flight. It’s the first flight that has had a connection. Every flight so far has been a direct one. That’s no accident, it weighed heavily on the order and specific cities that were chosen, keeping the airfare costs down considerably. Unfortunately, there aren’t any direct flights from Saigon to Guilin though, so we had a connection in Guangzhou. It was a very tight connection that left us 45 minutes to clear Chinese quarantine, immigration, and customs…. and make it to the other side of the second largest airport in China to our terminal. She can be pretty pushy, and after knocking a few old ladies out of the way we did make it with five minutes to spare. It also helped that foreigners seem to be enough of an oddity at Guangzhou that with multiple immigration lines open, the “foreigner” line was closed, which meant we went through the empty “special” line. It was a nice reminder that we’d managed to step off the westerner “banana pancakes trail”, as they call it. Ok, anyway, so we get to our flight terminal just before scheduled boarding, really breaking a sweat, and…. of course…. departure is delayed for an hour. I took the time to load up at the ATM (no more Vietnam “dong,” now we’re into “Yuan,” with a much easier conversion), grab some snacks, and settle in to watch some Stargate on the Macbook Air. Oh yeah, and on the snacks, why the hell does every Chinese snack and drink have to taste medicinal. I know, I could’ve just grabbed a couple Cokes, but instead I got a “Salted Mandarin Drink” and “Mountain Selfheal Spikefruit Drink.” Let’s just say that they weren’t kidding on the “salted” part on the first drink, and the second one tasted like some kind of herbal cold remedy or something. Not very good. I digress though. We’re at the airport, waiting on our delayed flight. The place is packed, every seat at the terminal is taken, and lots of people mulling are about. Suddenly, a crowd starts gathering at the terminal desk. Not a line…. A Crowd. The scene quickly got restless….. and then a little chaotic as all the seats started emptying and surrounding the desk. I was instantly reminded of the queuing behavior in Russia…. a chaotic frenzied free-for-all. What the hell were they up there for? We sure didn’t know, and no one spoke English, so she of course pushed and shoved her way to get some of whatever they were after, for us. While I’m standing there watching the feeding frenzy from a safe distance, I hear “G’Day Mate, What the hell is all this about?” I look over to see a very slight Asian (he was Filipino) gentlemen. He had a pretty thick Australian accent (which she later argued had a lot of a Filipino accent as well, but I mostly just heard Aussie). At this point I could see they were giving away food, as people were leaving the desk with armloads of goodies. I told the Aussie/Filipino guy this and he said “Aw hell we’re westerners, we don’t need no bloody free food eh.” We joked a little about this, and the thought occurred to me that maybe it wasn’t such a good sign they were giving away free food. How long did they expect us to be here? Hell, the flight from Guangzhou to Guilin is only 50 minutes. Anyhow, she emerged after a few minutes with bottled water, cookies, crackers, and some kind of sweet bean/legume soup product. Stores were closing down around this time (2200), and at the ones that were open, a can of soda cost ~$6.50 U.S. equivalent. We weren’t hungry, but figured it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have something if the hours dragged on.
Another hour or so drug on…. We ate our communist airline dinner ration…. the bean soup was actually not bad, I think it could likely sustain human life for a prolonged space mission…. After a while, another crowd started gathering, but this crowd was different. They were pissed. Earlier in the evening, I had seen a lady at the “flight information” desk screaming (really screaming) at the employee, and I thought to myself at the time “wow, there’s an outlier.” Well, now before us at the terminal desk was a whole crowd of “outliers.” They were kind of led and egged on by one chunky young Chinese lady with a bright blue shawl. She would yell something and wave her hands around and then three or four onlookers would join in. If the crowd had had pitchforks, she would’ve had a torch. The guy behind desk was taking all kinds of abuse from these people, at times looking like they were gonna grab him by the neck and drag him over the desk. We decided his general affect reminded us of her little brother YoYo, so when they continued to abuse the guy, we’d chuckle and say “Poor YoYo.” Pobrecito YoYo.
Watching the whole thing develop and the group psychology was immensely entertaining. They’d yell and scream, YoYo’s shoulders would slump and then he’d step away totally dejected to try and resolve things. When he’d leave, their demeanor would suddenly change and they would laugh and behave in a kind of celebratory way. I mean, these people were getting some kind of sick pleasure out of torturing poor YoYo, the messenger. At this point I started to consider that we were entering a truly different place, with behavioral norms far outside the other places we’ve been in Asia. I mean, I’ve met plenty of Chinese people. Chinese people in America. Behaving like other Americans, mostly. But this is China now. Behaving like this mob in America would’ve had Bon Qui Qui yelling “Sacurity!!” Watching it I joked “Chinese people don’t take any shit!”….really though, the unhappy group behavior reminded me of Russia for sure, and my thoughts, even in such little time, are that surely there are some unique group dynamics that develop in a communist society. The squeaky wheel gets the oil…. well, or it get’s something at least.
Anyway, we didn’t catch our 2030 flight until after midnight. By that time the Aussie/Filipino had even joined in with the mob cursing at the staff. At one point we all lined up at a new gate, and I thought for sure we were gonna board…. then, everyone around us starts yelling like crazy at the lady…. some conversation back and forth…. then…. what? More bean soup. Yep, she breaks out another box of bean soup and starts passing it out. Believe it our not, it calmed everyone down. Really weird. We were like, “enough with the bean soup, how about our damn flight?” It did come eventually, and we were quite happy to have a guy from our hotel waiting in the Guilin airport for pickup. Got to bed around 0230, and up today around 1000. That rather entertaining ordeal warranted sleeping in a bit.
We started off the day with a local specialty called Guilin Mifun. Basically a spicy as hell beef noodle dish. Very good, and very Chinese. We’re definitely not in Southeast Asia anymore.
The agenda today was basically to explore “Elephant Trunk Hill” park and “Solitary Beauty Peak,” a couple scenic spots in Guilin that are walking distance from our hotel. Walking around town, we definitely stick out. In Saigon, you’ll see groups of white people (mostly Australian and French, it seemed) all the time. We saw almost none in our entire day. Less than five I would say. Locals are very friendly. The only hint of shadiness was a guy, an “English teacher” that wanted to walk with us and then tried to sell us on tickets to some acrobat show. He was pretty smooth I’ll say, taking his time getting around to it. The “is it ok if I practice English with you” is a good opener here for touts and scammers though, because plenty of people will legitimately ask you the same thing. Oh, and shopkeepers with limited English yell out some of the same stuff, always “HELLO!!!!”, “Hey there, where are you from?”….crickets….don’t answer…..”SIR, Hello!!”…..”Where are you going?”….In India, my eventual closer was (with a really hard, slightly crazed stare directly into their eyes) “None of your business.” I’m gonna try a gentler approach here with a reply of “Somewhere else.” If they persist though, I will go India on their asses.
Oh yeah, so anyway, Elephant Trunk Hill was pretty cool. It’s iconic for Guilin for sure.
We also checked out “Solitary Beauty Peak,” which is the cover shot for Guilin in one of our travel books. We got there after closing (no ticket counter and front gate locked), but a side gate was open that locals were walking through. We just strode in and no one said anything. ~$15/pp admission saved, hell yeah!
The place is very pretty, but like many large structures, they’re really best seen from afar. We looked at the photo copied from our travel book that showed the peak from afar and from high up and couldn’t figure out how they took it. There aren’t any buildings around more than a couple stories. Just as we started to resign that the shot was taken by helicopter (tricky bastards) we noticed a small peak marked on the map several blocks away. We walked there, and it was the same deal. Ticket booth closed…. stride right in with the locals. Another ~$6/pp ticket skipped. Do other travelers not know this? The locals clearly do. Just walk right in after the place closes. Awesome. We ran up this big ass hill to try and grab a few wide shots before the sunlight faded completely. Got a few nice ones and descended in near dark
Walking around Guilin at night is pretty cool. They use A LOT of neon.
Oh yeah, and a really scenic night spot in Guilin:
And finally, another quick tropical fruit addition. We grabbed a little of a fruit we haven’t managed to try before: Jackfruit. This is a REALLY big fruit. It makes durian seem tiny. Kind of like cantaloupe in taste, but with a texture maybe like a dry pineapple. Pretty good though.
Tomorrow we’ve got a nice full day… I’ll try to keep the updates coming.